Ken Martinez, newly named principal at Ontario High School, says he wants to help students and families negotiate the changes wrought by the pandemic years. (Ontario School District)

ONTARIO – Ken Martinez is getting ready to listen to the community as he prepares to become principal at Ontario High School.

The Ontario School District this month announced that Martinez, an instructional coach in the district, had been picked for the job after a competitive process.

He takes on the job Aug. 1, succeeding Jodi Elizondo. Elizondo is moving to a new administrative job with the district.

Martinez, 40, steps in as the school system still feels its way through adapting to changes brought by the pandemic. School officials across Oregon are working to help students catch up with learning ­– and with the socialization that stalled the past two years.

He intends to hold open houses and “listening sessions” through the spring. He wants to talk to parents and students.

“I need to know what they’re thinking, what they’re concerned about,” Martinez said. “Hearing that, it’s critical.”

He said pandemic “changed education. We can’t ignore the impacts.”

He noted that because of state-ordered closures, “our students were out of the building for 525 days. That’s an incredible number.”

“That left many students without the comfort they get at school, whether it’s a feeling of safety, a good meal or being with their peers.”

Martinez grew up in Klamath Falls, where he said his path to education was set.

He tells of struggling as a first-grader.

“I couldn’t see the chalkboard. I was losing my vision,” he recalled. “My teacher noticed something was going on. She had that heart of a teacher. She let my parents know I couldn’t see.”

Since then, he said, he wanted to be a teacher. At one point, he thought of a law enforcement career but stayed with education, earning degrees at Oregon Institute of Technology and then a master’s degree from Southern Oregon University.

He helped launch EagleRidge Charter High School, a charter school which opened in Klamath Falls in 2007 with a focus on high tech. Martinez was one of its first employees, explaining the new school to the community.

“I was pitching an idea for a school and talking about programs, talking about all these offerings that were going to be part of a school that didn’t exist yet,” Martinez said.

When the school struggled in its early years, the Oregon Education Department sent help, including instructional coaches. These coaches help teachers develop their own skills and devise classroom programs.

Martinez said one of the state coaches suggested he pursue a role as an instructional coach.

That opportunity came eight years ago, when his wife, Lynette Martinez, took a new state job in Ontario and Martinez followed. He started work as an instructional coach first at the Ontario Middle School and then moved to the high school in the same capacity.

“My students now are the teachers,” Martinez said in explaining the job.

“We got into classrooms, provide feedback, work with teachers around classroom management, student engagement, lesson planning,” Martinez said.

As the pandemic took hold in early 2020, teachers and school administrators had to adapt to teaching remotely. The switch to virtual learning while students were away from school buildings was challenging, Martinez said.

“Teachers had to be very, very creative. They had to repackage learning. Most families don’t have welding equipment at home,” Martinez said.

He said that even with the return to the classroom, teachers have continued to use digital tools to teach.

One change coming that Martinez said will help Ontario students takes hold for eighth graders headed to high school next year.

He explained the district is establishing “student pathways” to provide high school students a more focused four-year course of study.

“This will allow for students to prepare more deeply in one area,” Martinez said, such as fine arts, agriculture or health sciences. “This will be powerful for those students. It will give those students more direction.”

He said testing has finished for eighth graders and counselors soon will work with them to develop their high school programs.

In announcing his hiring, the school district said in its statement that Martinez is “a natural leader and trusted colleague” who helped Ontario High School achieve a 91% graduation rate.

“His effective understanding of educational design, building wide planning, mentorship, positive attitude and ability to identify and meet the needs of all students makes him a holistic leader,” the statement said.

Martinez said he is finishing up a bit of his own education, soon completing a master’s degree in educational leadership at Boise State University.

He’s ready to get to work, though.

“I’m just excited for the opportunity and opportunity,” he said.

News tip? Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected]

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM - Available for $5 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness. Get the kind of news you’ve been looking for - day in and day out from the Enterprise.